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Oct 18, 2014

October 2014 Horror Movie a Day - Day 17: RAVENOUS (1999)


[SPOILER] Warning: There are spoilers ahead. I try not to ruin the movie, but there are points I feel I have to bring up in order to do a proper write up.

I remember seeing Ravenous when it was released in 1999, but somehow I didn't actually remember Ravenous. I remembered the plot and a scene at a cave vaguely, but other than that the passage of time made this film a dim memory, although I did recall liking it. Revisiting it now was almost like seeing the movie for the first time. 15 years later and Scream Factory has released the film on Blu-ray Disc, and re-watching it I liked it immensely.

On the count of three, we'll slice each other's throats together. One...two...
Everything about this picture is unique. The tone, the score, the setting - everything. I was hooked on the idea of a horror movie set on an isolated army outpost during Western expansion. Look at it this way. Imagine if Dances With Wolves was Dances With Werewolves. You could have Kevin Costner's Lt. Dunbar character bitten by his wolf companion Two Socks and add a curse with Native American mythology. The soldiers show up to Fort Sedgwick and Costner - in werewolf form - picks them off one-by-one.

What, is there something wrong with my face?
For the record, Ravenous is not a werewolf picture. There is Native American mythology at play as well as flesh eating, but these characters don't have to turn into some sort of wild creature to satisfy their blood-lust. They just need a small taste of human flesh.

Why does everyone keep looking at me like I'm lunch?
It is 1847 and Guy Pearce is John Boyd, a decorated soldier who single handed captures an enemy command post during the Mexican-American war. He is decorated, but it is soon revealed that while his outfit was being massacred, in an act of cowardice he played dead to avoid capture or worse. Piled under his dead comrades, blood from his Commanding Officer seeps into his mouth and "down his throat" and suddenly he has a burst of energy which inspires him to blindly attack the enemy and carry out his heroic deed. He is promoted to the rank of Captain, but then banished to the remote Fort Spencer (and he's sent there by actor John Spencer) in the Sierra Nevadas for his cowardice.

I don't have to 'dance' with any animals, do I?
Fort Spencer is run by a group of oddballs. The doctor barely knows what he's doing and is constantly drunk. The commander (Jeffrey Jones) is completely off his rocker - almost like Maury Chaykin from Dances With Wolves except he doesn't blow his brains out. They have a Native American tracker (the only sane person in the group), and a private (David Arquette) who is constantly high.

Somebody forgot to turn on the heat in this river.
The bizarre monotony of Fort Spencer is interrupted by the arrival of a stranger played by Robert Carlyle. Carlyle tells them a horrific tale of how a wagon train he was a part of was lost in the mountains, and eventually the group succumbed to cannibalism to stay alive. He says there is a woman who is still hiding in a cave, and Jeffrey Jones immediately jumps into action. He orders most of his men - and Pearce - to form a rescue party. Before they leave they are warned by their Native scout of the myth of the 'Windigo', a man who after eating the flesh of another human became a demon, cursed to eternally crave more. They ignore it as folklore, but the whole thing ends up to be a trap set by Carlyle to stock up on soldier meat. Pearce makes a getaway by jumping off a cliff, but breaks his leg in the process (bone through skin, the whole deal). Landing next to one of his dead comrades, he gives in and eats the man's flesh to survive.

Oh this blood around my mouth? Yeah, just ignore that, it's just your friend's.
Healed, he returns to Fort Spencer where nobody believes his wild story. A new commander is put in charge, and Pearce is shocked to see that it is Carlyle. Pearce frantically tries to warn everyone. Carlyle appears to be blameless while Pearce appears to be nuts. 

Perhaps we can use the bones in a soup later.
One-by-one the inhabitants of the Fort start to die and Pearce is the prime suspect. Carlyle shows Pearce his master plan, pointing out that this Fort is right in the middle of the route that will take many of the pioneers into the west, making it a prime smorgasbord location. Carlyle wants Pearce to join him, knowing that he has tasted human flesh and has experienced the power that comes with it. Pearce wants no part of it, and works on stopping this cannibal before everyone becomes part of his stew.

As you know Dearie, eating human flesh always comes with a price.
Cannibals, soldiers, an isolated fort, a harsh winter climate and Native American legends - this movie has it all. The opening scene gets right to the point as Guy Pearce is at a table of soldiers all eating incredibly bloody (and nasty looking) steaks, and can't bring himself to do it. Carlyle is fantastic in this with an understated menace that makes him seem more dangerous that many other Horror movie killers. I recently binge watched the first 3 seasons of Once Upon a Time (on ABC) where Carlyle plays Rumpelstiltskin/Mr. Gold, an off-and-on villain (or at least a character with a checkered past). He's fantastic on that show as he is here and really made this movie for me.

This is so much better than the stew my Mom used to make. That extra portion of 'Joe' really adds flavor.
There's plenty of gore, and it may not be for the squeamish with close of shots of people devouring human flesh. Even just a shot of what appears to be normal stew is menacing because we all know what the main ingredient is - our mind fills in the blank. It looks as horrifying as it does delicious (it did in fact make me kind of hungry while I was watching it). 

See, I told you this bear trap was big enough for the both of us.
The score really works to set this picture apart from any other horror movie I have seen. It is almost jaunty. In fact, if you stumbled upon this movie on TV and heard it, you'd have no idea you were about to watch a horror movie as it is so light-hearted. Yet it works in that it helps the audience swallow the idea that here we have an outpost of ravenous cannibals (and yes, pun intended - cue groans).

This tastes nothing like chicken!
The location is great as the isolation really adds to the tension, as does the time period. Also, I don't know why more horror pictures don't use winter as an element. The snow and cold add an extra layer, although I know most producers would rather have their camera-friendly (usually teen) victims run around more scantily clad (not to mention shooting in winter is not pleasant at all - I know, I've done it and hated every second of it).

Thank you Scream Factory!
The Blu-ray Disc looks fabulous, which is the case with everything that Scream Factory releases. 

I feel as though this picture is an underrated gem that deserves rediscovering. I'm glad I took the chance to revisit it.